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a curiously Platonic little 12th-century Russian sermon

September 16, 2011

Before Russia was Russia, it was Rus (kinda rhymes with “noose”), and around the turn of the millenium, Rus was terribly busy: it got politically unified (it used to be Mongols and bears), invented and disseminated the Cyrillic alphabet, gained literacy, began frantically translating Greek and Latin texts, and converted to Christianity (from a sort of rural paganism) all at once. The next few centuries show a wild set of “literary” reactions to these belated, speedy changes. In the 12th century, the metropolitan of Kiev, a devout Christian and accomplished rhetor named Ilarion, delivered a sermon in order to oppose the Law of Moses with the Grace of Christ.

Binary oppositions abound in this sermon, and Ilarion subordinates each pair to his larger schematic paradigm: the “shadow” and the “Truth” become metaphors for Law and Grace, as do “things which are on earth” and “things which are in heaven,” bondage and freedom, the mutually illuminating parables of Hagar and Sarah, and even the Platonic “candlelight” and “sunlight.” One of Ilarion’s favorite binaries is the “justification” of Jewish Law as it opposes the “salvation” of Christian Grace. It would seem that for Ilarion, justification is a sort of earthly, collective attempt on the part of the Jews to “save” each other through their covenant, their tradition, and their holy writings, rather than through an individual and direct communion with God. Since the Law only governs man’s actions in this realm, the Jewish effort to maintain it must be based in community and interpretation. The Christian capacity to attain Grace, however, seems to transcend symbolic readings. Ilarion’s metaphors should be digested literally by his listeners, just as the miracles he describes do not symbolize but rather embody the holy acts of Christ. “Justification,” the practice enacted by the Jews upon their Law, that is, the practice of interpreting the written word and gleaning earthly knowledge from it, is an unnecessary step for Ilarion: “with the Truth and Grace Christians are not justified but are saved.” His message leaves his lips and works upon his listeners without explication.

Given his illustration of the justification/salvation opposition and its various properties and consequences, what can we make of the numerous instances of interpretation Ilarion enacts within his own sermon? Why should we understand these moments of Biblical interpretation as exempt from the label “justification,” albeit Ilarion’s own brand, replete with his own teleology, his own faith and his own agenda? Some of these textual interpretations are more explicit than others; in section (33) he says:

Thus it was meet that Grace and Truth should shine forth upon new people. In the words of the Lord: “Men do not pour new wine”—the teaching of Grace—“into old skins”—Jewry, old and decrepit—“else the skins will burst and the wine will spill over.”

Ilarion literally inserts his commentary into this citation from the Gospels; he is interpreting here on a rather minute level. We see him explicate the enigmatic words of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (this wine-and-skins line is repeated several times in the Gospels) to further his own argument: this is a close reading! He justifies his sermon with the words of the Apostles; he justifies the words of the Apostles with his sermon. Ilarion is treating the text of the New Testament as Law, rather than as Grace.

Okay, what? How can we justify Ilarion’s practice of justification? I would like to suggest that an answer to this puzzle lies in the difference between spoken and written language. The kind of “justification” found in Jewish Law is a recorded one, embedded in sacred commentary upon sacred commentary ad infinitem. The injunction to interpret, to justify, and to record those readings so that others may comment upon them is specifically a gesture towards posterity on earth. But Ilarion’s sermon is a spoken genre. His readings of the Bible are rhetorical rather than hermeneutic. His words are not a historic occasion but are instead intended to persuade those whose ears they reach in their own lifetime, that is, before their own deaths, before their ascents to heaven. He is not concerned with maintaining and justifying a people, but rather with saving individuals, granting them personally a means to attain Grace.

Incredibly, the trajectory of my musings so far almost exactly mirrors the arc of my experience reading Plato’s Republic. I feel that these last lines I have written in defense of Ilarion’s use of textual interpretation could be said about Socrates in Book 10. How ugly and wrong it feels to me when Plato’s protagonist coldly rails against metaphor and tragedy in Book 3; how strange it feels to reach Book 10, where in a discussion of the soul, Socrates employs the very literary device he scorns; and then, upon reflection, how sweet the punch: this myth of Er is metaphor showing its potential to “save” each soul, if well employed, if well attended to. I don’t know what else to do with this parallel: of course dialogue is a spoken genre, too– but then, so is tragedy, and we lose footing quickly here, and these twin textual practices, metaphor and hermeneutics, are the most basic, the most dangerous, the most impossible not to employ. Perhaps Kierkegaard is right when he calls Socrates an early type of Christ, and now we’re trailing off. Talk to me, folks–

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2011 4:40 am

    This is great. My initial reaction is that we obviously have to find all of the written transcriptions of Plato and Rus rhetors and burn them immediately. A weird thing about Plato, at least on my reading of him via Aristotle’s Rhetoric, is that, since “pure” Dialectic would be unutterable, Plato needs metaphor and simile in order to kind of cheat his way up. I wonder whether there’s something kind of similar going on here. I mean, what would a sermon look like that stuck squarely to the rhetorical repertoire that, in theory, best befits an agenda of salvation rather than justification? No interpretation at all? I like your emphasis on the presence of the rhetorical performance vs. the posterity of Jewish legal hermeneutics, but I want to counter by pointing out that the Jewish interpretive tradition remains–although meticulously transcribed, compiled, and preeminently concerned with the graphic dimension of the signifier–the “oral law”; posterity is definitely one dimension of it, but there’s also this transhistorical dialogue that’s constantly post-figured in Jewish pedagogical practice: two guys reading the different voices of the two or three Rabbis arguing on any given page of the Talmud. Which makes it very Platonic, except insofar as interpretive closure in Rabbinic hermeneutics is absolutely verboten (it would be idolatry). What do you think about this?

    • linebrick permalink*
      September 16, 2011 3:08 pm

      Wow, that’s a gorgeous image of the Rabbi-dialogue performed– and I agree that it is Platonic in a sense, the “dialogue” sense, but of course Plato’s dialogues oughtn’t be performed (right??), so it’s more like the fact that it IS “post-figured” that makes it Platonic… does that make sense? In other words, I feel that the knowledge that the Talmud has been performed dialogically is what makes it resonate with my feeling about Platonic dialogues, not the performance itself. Which of course requires a record or else how would we even know? Strange thing, temporality…
      Also, I know very little about what constitutes idolatry in the various different branches of Jewish textual practice; do elaborate…

      • September 17, 2011 7:00 pm

        Okay, so in the scripture it is written that Moses recited to the Israelites what God had spoken to him to transmit. Commandment 2:

        (Exodus 20:4) “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (5) You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me (6) but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

        This is obviously directed at the fetishism and idol-worship typical of the polytheistic religions from which Judaism is always distinguishing itself, typified in the Egyptians (we can imagine the worshipers of the golden calf simply recreating a practice from living memory). However, the interpretations of this commandment are responsible for a general prohibition of all graphic representation of things divine, which accounts in large part for the absence of any illuminated manuscript tradition, or visual illustration of bible scenes in Synagogues, etc. Interestingly, Muslim mathematicians got around this interdict by developing the art of sacred mosaics: intricate patterns adorn mosque some walls that represent God and which do not count as idolatry because they are “patterns” rather than “images”; i.e. because they are infinitely repeatable and not finitely bound entities they serve to glorify rather than profane the transcendent. This same logic I take to govern the Talmudic precept that the moment we think that we’ve figured out the meaning of a passage, we’ve taken the Torah as an idol substitute for God, while the real meaning of the “written law” is inseparable from the necessarily interminable engagement of the “oral law”: re-interpretation, new objections, lines of questioning, etc., which itself constitutes obeying the law.

  2. September 16, 2011 5:31 am

    I prefer to think of Christ as a late imitator of Socrates. Certainly the Socratic and Christian narratives parallel one another, and Platonic strands in Christianity run considerably deeper than the the Neoplatonism which crops up already very early in its history. Whatever a Jew named Josh did or thought he was doing actually matters very little: “Jesus” is the character who appears in the certain Greek writings (some of them, perhaps, patterned off of Aramaic originals, but no matter) — and the Greek language itself had already spent several centuries steeping in Plato.

    The interpretation you put forward seems precisely accurate for the sermon you describe. Exegesis, for Kiev, exists to a particular, immediate end — that of persuading individuals to accept the grace of God — and can thereafter be discarded. This is not exactly the same as the difference between an oral and a written text. On the one hand, you are exactly right to point out that what we are dealing with are essentially the waste-products of an oral performance (a sermon) — it has either served its purpose or not, and has no business hanging around as a part of a solid body of interpretation as if we were a bunch of Jews or something. On the other hand, if you personally, coming across this scrap of waste-paper a thousand years after the fact, read it and become deeply moved by it and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, surely this would not be so contrary to Kiev’s intention. And if many read it and are so moved, the interpretation has extra value as a written artifact that it would not have had as an oral performance — so long as, having developed our relationship with God, we remember to cast it aside.

    How, then, does this relate to Plato? I don’t know, of course — I (infamously) never finished the Republic. But I have read the Phaedrus (surely an important work for Plato’s relationship with writing!) and I have thought a great deal about orality and literacy in the Ancient Greek world. One of my favorite aspects of Nagy’s work is his important three-way typology of kinds of texts: texts as transcripts of performance, texts as scripts for performance, and texts as scripture. By the last, he means texts which do not presuppose performance at all, i.e. texts which are to be appreciated and studied as texts. This is surely an idiosyncratic definition, but the word is not idly chosen. Texts as scripture can possess authority of their own; they are no longer merely guides for authoritative performance. There is the real possibility of their becoming the kind of cumbersome “how-to guide” that Kiev attacks the Jewish scriptures for attempting.

    Now, according to Nagy the text of Homer (at any rate) do not become scripture until the monumental editions of Aristarchus around 200 BC, 150 years or so after Plato’s death; but it was a process that started (a fact to which Nagy is not always sufficiently attentive) well before that; Zenodotus had made his own editions a generation before. The fourth and third centuries BC were the centuries of the becoming-scripture of the script. After all, even by Aristotle’s time, tragedy was as much something to be read as to be seen. The Platonic gesture, whatever it was, seems explicable in the context of this massive shift: Plato saw the texts Homer and the tragedians becoming scripture around him, and, in the dialogue, attempted to craft a text which resisted the process, while attacking his predecessors for their failure to do do.

    I suppose, then, that perhaps what I am driving at is very much contrary to what I said at the beginning of my comment. The Platonic gesture is a particular reaction to the becoming-scripture of the script. Surely the changes you have set forth in Russia also involved the becoming-scripture of the script. (Or rather: the becoming-scripture of the becoming-script transcript, which had only recently become a transcript itself. The Russians seem less inclined to dally about these things.) And perhaps we can trace Christianity itself to the similar impulse. After all, Judaism as a specifically scriptural religion was in its infancy (possibly still in the womb), and perhaps the Hebrew scriptures were themselves emerging out of scripts and transcripts. (Oddly enough, although my knowledge of such matters is fairly hazy, I believe that, with the Septuagint, the Ptolemies — whose library was responsible for the final set of scriptures we call “Homer” — had a hand in the becoming-scripture of the Hebrew scripts.) Thus, although the strong Platonic elements in the Hellenistic cultural and linguistic milieu may account for some of Christianity Platonic leanings, the two were already profoundly compatible on account of their roots in a very similar set of cultural shifts.

    [These are all of course, logocentrisms, and the attempt to resist the becoming-scripture of the script is and was in all cases futile.]

    • linebrick permalink*
      September 17, 2011 5:16 pm

      It’s nice to think of the text of the sermon I have now (with my COMMENTS on it the MARGINS!) as a vessel for the performance of the sermon, the words of which in themselves should be a vessel for the message of Grace. Our rhetor (his name is Ilarion, Kiev is the name of the big polis, so to speak– but it’s a very nice mistake to make because of course we are right smack in the middle of the transition from anonymous, multiple authors of a text [chroniclers, they’re called] to one definitive author. The idea that all of Russian Kiev is behind the authorship of this sermon is well worth considering, and it’s not clear to me whether Ilarion would have embraced it or not.) probably wrote down the text because he COULD write it down; newly, people were WRITING THINGS DOWN, and it seems to me even a generation or two ago he might just have memorized it. I mean, he probably DID memorize it.

      • September 18, 2011 9:01 pm

        Woops! I seem to have misread. (I was very tired when I composed this comment, and that may account for much of it.)

  3. linebrick permalink*
    September 16, 2011 3:29 pm

    Sam! This is fascinating and I will respond to it at great length in a couple of hours, but could you recommend a Nagy article or chapter or something where he talks about these three kinds of script???

  4. September 16, 2011 3:56 pm

    Open any Nagy book published in the fifteen years or so and you’re likely to encounter the words & his definitions of them (although I’ve never quite understood what he means by “broad” and “narrow”). A convenient little summary is provided at the beginning of Homer the Classic (one of his most recent books, available online here: ); more in-depth and canonical is the account in Poetry as Performance, starting around p.110 and continuing on and off for the rest of the book. (I haven’t actually read this far in P as P, but I know it to be one of his earliest and fullest explications of the theory. It’s available online here: , although my page numbers will be useless; the relevant bits start a few pages into chapter 5).

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